The most significant decision of my life was made for me when I was just two years old. That was when my family packed our entire life into three suitcases and fled the former Soviet Union as refugees. When we arrived in the United States, my parents spoke no more than ten combined words of English, but they were fluent in another language; both had advanced engineering degrees and within months started careers in the tech sector.
It’s not lost on me just how lucky my family was to land in, of all places, Silicon Valley. Coming of age during the 90s Dotcom boom and witnessing the impact it had on my family seeded me with a deeply-held belief in the proegrssive power of technology and innovation. From that young age, I was hooked.
Growing up, I was obsessed with the future; the idea of what’s coming next. My dream was to become an engineer, which I believed was the path to help create that next big thing. So when I got to Berkeley, I naturally enrolled as an EECS (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) major. Just a few semesters in, I hit a wall. I learned I wasn’t a particularly gifted programmer and, worse yet, I wasn’t enjoying myself. That was my first proverbial “oh sh*t” moment; the point when reality strikes a blow to all your best laid plans. Though I didn’t appreciate it then, this experience shaped my career in two profound ways. First, it gave me a deep respect for the discipline of computer science and, even more so, the talented engineers who could build seemingly anything their minds could conjure. Second, it was during this time I discovered the world venture capital. Venture, ultimately, became my avenue to explore the future and play a small role in shaping it.
I started my VC career in New York at the height of the social and mobile booms where seemingly the entire tech world was chasing the next Instagram or WhatsApp. Though I could appreciate the revolutionary cultural impact of these products, I was far more interested in the technical breakthroughs that were enabling this new class of companies to build and deploy magical experiences that could reach billions of connected users all over the world? I was also scratching an itch, looking for tools and technologies that could have made a decent programmer. To me, technology was always about leverage, enabling us to do more with less, to build better, faster, cheaper and unlock new applications and services. So while others were studying up on network effects, I was going to AWS, Hadoop and NodeJS MeetUps. Fast forward a decade later, and my exploration of cloud computing, DevOps, data infrastructure and security led me to work with generational founders of companies like Datadog, Hashicorp and Cockroach Labs. Focusing on what you’re passionate about is the best career advice I can offer.
At Amplify, we are driven to build the best-in-class platform to support today’s generation of deeply technical founders and do everything in our power to help them evolve into leaders of tomorrow’s great enterprise companies. As we’re singularly obsessed with our mission, I look for founders who are similarly obsessed with a vision of the world only they can build. They are the developers, technologists, data scientists, hackers and practitioners who have experienced a problem so viscearly, they are compelled to spend the next decade of their lives on the solution. My colleague David and I semi-jokingly refer to this group as the lunatic fringe, where we feel most at home, by the way.
Besides that unrelenting drive, I look for founders that can take themselves and whatever life throws at them lightly. Building a company can be a humbling experience where you’re bound to be wrong way more than often you are right. Those founders who can approach the journey with empathy, humility and humor set themselves up for long-term success.
There’s nothing like a good story, in fact, we are all biologically wired to connect with stories. But too often in startups we’re focused on the what, not the why or the how. The irony, of course, is that the underlying technology – the what in this case – is almost never what makes or breaks a product. Said another way, a breakthrough innovation is necessary but far from sufficient to create a generational company. The lesson here is that founders too often neglect the big picture – the story – for the technical details. Features don’t matter if your users don’t understand why you exist. My advice is to figure out who you are, what you stand for and who you serve. Your strategic narrative is your strategy – from your product to your go-to-market. Moreover, telling a compelling story is how you’ll recruit your all-star team and land your first ten customers.
I’m a lifelong, suffering San Jose Sharks fan and after Super Bowl LIV I can never hear the words “4th and 15” again. My athletic claim-to-fame is I used to be a Northern California-ranked tennis player — in the 12-and-under bracket — and now I’m getting into running. Besides that, I’m a proud husband and father, and I can go toe-to-toe with anyone in a Seinfeld trivia showdown.